“It’s raining birds,” said Casey, nose pressed against glass.
“Away from the window, Case.”
Jack tapped her on the shoulder and tore a strip of duct tape from the roll he held. He placed it vertically along the window’s edge, over the grout, and kept placing strips until the glass was framed with glossy black. He lost the tape end, found it, and tore another strip.
“Dad, don’t cover the glass.”
“I have to, baby. There could be cracks.”
“I want to be able to see Mum.” Jack paused, holding the tape.
“Casey, the air’s bad. We can’t risk it.”
“Please, Daddy.” Jack sighed and knelt down to his daughter’s level.
“Baby, I miss her too. But I have to tape it up. We can say goodbye to her first, okay?”
Casey bit her lip and nodded. “I don’t want to say goodbye.”
“I don’t either.”
They turned to look out the window. Some of the plants outside were withered, the pale grey terraces opposite still and dormant. On the yellowed grass was the body of a woman. Her hand rested on a pair of secateurs.
“When will she wake up, Daddy?”
“In a few days, baby. When they fix the air.” He stroked her hair and she pressed her nose back against the window.
“See you soon, Mum. I love you.”
“Come on, little bit.” Jack picked her up. “Let’s get you ready for bed.”
He carried her up the stairs and into the bathroom, then ran the water while she kicked off her clothes and got in. She slumped forward as he washed her hair.
“You ok, Case?” She wrinkled her nose and shook her head.
“I want things to go back to normal.”
“They will do. Once they sort the air out.”
“Do you promise?” Jack brushed her hair from her forehead and took a deep breath.
“Yes, baby. I promise.”
Silently he soaped and rinsed her body, then held a towel out for her to step into.
“Put your pyjamas on and do your teeth. I just have to do some things downstairs.”
“You taping the window?”
“I have to.”
“They’re sorting it out, Case. The air will be clean in a few days.”
He walked down to the living room and started to pace. He could tape the window, but what would that give them? An extra hour? The house was old. There were drafts. Gaps. It was only a matter of time. And what would happen if he went first? He slammed his fist down on the television.
“You ok Daddy?”
“Yeah, I'm fine.”
He couldn't let that happen to Casey. No way in hell. Which left only one thing to do. He had no other choice.
He went down to the kitchen and filled a tumbler with water, then walked upstairs to his bedroom. There was an old packet of sleeping tablets in the cupboard. He took one out and dropped it into the tumbler, swirling it round until all that remained were bubbles on the surface.
Casey was in bed, covers pulled up to her neck.
“Here’s your water baby.” He held it out to her.
“Thanks.” She took a few sips and then moved to put it on the bedside table.
“Drink it all, we need to stay hydrated.”
“Okay.” She drained the glass, put it on the bedside table and grinned at her Dad. Jack forced a smile.
“Do you trust me, Case?”
She giggled. “Of course, Daddy.”
“Well, don’t you think it’s time to wake up now?”
She looked confused.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s time to wake up. You’re dreaming.”
She giggled again. “No, I’m not.”
Jack smiled. “Of course you are. Think about it. Does it rain birds in real life?”
“And is the grass yellow in real life?” She shook her head.
“And do you get fajitas two days in a row in real life?”
“So, then, the only explanation is that you’re dreaming. And you’ll wake up soon. It’s almost time for school. And you always feel sleepy before you wake up. Don’t you feel kind of sleepy?”
She looked at the ceiling for a few moments. “I do feel a bit weird…”
Jack smiled. “I gave you a special waking up potion, because I love you so much I want to play with you before school. Only Daddies in dreamland can do that.”
She blinked. “So Mum’s not really sleeping on the grass outside?”
Jack forced another smile. “Nope! She’s in my bedroom, cuddling me!”
Casey laughed and threw her arms round her father. “Wow!”
He moved a little closer. “Crazy, right? Shall we have a cuddle until you wake up?”
“Okay.” Jack got into the bed.
“I feel sleepy, Daddy.”
“I know, baby. That means you’ll wake up soon.” He paused, choking back emotion.
“I love you, Case. So much. Don’t ever forget that.”
“I love you more!” He smiled. She laid her head on his lap and he stroked her hair until she was asleep.
He carried her downstairs to the front door. The duct tape peeled off easily, but he took his time, feeling Casey’s little heart beating against his side.
When the door was free of tape, Jack started to cry. He turned the key to the right, heard the tumbler snap out of the lock, then wrenched open the door.
He staggered over to his wife and collapsed onto her, hugging Casey tightly. The whole world was dying, but at least he was going with his family. And all because of a mutation; a tiny change in the way ocean-dwelling algae function. They no longer produced oxygen. Just chlorine gas. It was poisoning the air, and nothing could be done.
Jack’s world slid out of focus. The little heart against his side stopped beating. He smiled, and allowed himself to die.